1999. Directed by Tim Burton.
Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow takes a loose interpretation of Washington Irving’s classic story and infuses it with poetic Gothic visuals, a fragile Johnny Depp performance, and a heart felt homage to Hammer Film Productions, to create an artistic slasher film that defies genre conventions with its astounding art direction and beautifully captured sequences of operatic violence.
Ichabod Crane is a scientific police investigator who is dispatched to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of murders in which the corpses are being found without their heads. Soon after his arrival, Crane is thrown into the midst of scheming aristocrats, malignant chicanery, a precarious love interest, and the impending arrival of the spectral Headless Horsemen.
Filmed almost entirely on set, Peter Young and Rich Heinrich’s art direction creates the town of Sleepy Hollow from the ground up, with the artificial feeling of the sets enriching the dreamy atmosphere. The architecture has a Byzantine quality that offsets the colonial designs with a menacing undercurrent. Young and Heinrich would go on to win the Oscar for their work. Colleen Atwood’s Oscar nominated costume design takes Victorian tropes and uses a dash of steampunk to reinforce Crane’s outsider status, contrasting his big city cop with the town’s nobility, who cling to anachronistic ideals of pomp and circumstance.
Cinematography icon Emmanuel Lubezski uses a Stygian color palette and soft lighting to both emulate the Hammer Film ambiance and to present Sleepy Hollow as an ethereal revelry. While the action sequences are violent, even the bloodshed has an art house quality, so much so that the viewer often forgets they’re viewing a horror film, an undeniable byproduct of El Chivo’s Oscar nominated work. Long time Burton collaborator Danny Elfman scored the film, accentuating the Gothic vibe with droning organs and whimsical vigor.
Johnny Depp gives one of his most understated performances as Crane, the would be hero who is completely out of his element. He’s supported by Christina Ricci, Jeffrey Jones, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Christopher Walken, Caspar Van Dien, Richard Griffiths, Michael Gough, Christopher Lee, and Martin Landau. Yes, you read that right. Burton assembled a well oiled machine of top shelf talent in which every participant gladly submits to the melodramatic terror with a playful sense of abandon. While Andrew Walker’s script doesn’t allow much time for attachment, the sheer amount of talent makes each kill scene a story unto itself, with each of the formidable actors having their moment in the fog drenched spotlight.
Available now on Netflix, Sleepy Hollow is vintage Burton and a riotous horror departure. Using amazing visual flourishes and tight cinematography to frame a well known story in a humorously violent package, this film is a welcome addition to any Halloween viewing list. Using a fable like presentation, replete with witches, demons, and redemption, Sleepy Hollow is a unique exercise in American folklore that delivers is a devilishly good fright film.